He even walks in stereo. So proclaims a kid on a stoop toward the beginning of Do the Right Thing; he’s stunned by the sun but also by the sight and sound of Radio Raheem. Raheem is silent but so solid—Bill Nunn glowers benevolently, occupying almost every inch of the frame when it tries to take him in; swatches of sky slip around him, but little else—and his boom box, blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” does all his talking for him. He walks in stereo. What a perfect metaphor for a person at his best, or at least his most impressive: irreducible, unrepeatable, attacking from all angles, fully alive. This guy whose voice we’ve barely heard is nevertheless precisely calibrated between a fader’s extremities—listen with this ear and catch one facet of his personality, listen with the other and get engrossed in something else. It’s possible, with just this glance, to isolate Raheem’s parts but also to hear how his composition coheres.
Human experience, en masse and within each life, is stubbornly stereophonic; it refuses to express itself through just one speaker. And although it seems almost flip and far too broad to say that Spike Lee’s fiery furnace of a masterpiece is, at heart, a disquisition on humanity—in all its variety and perversity; with its precarious, usually doomed, but always moving attempts at balance—here we have it, at the outset, and in everything that follows. The loose flow of vignettes that fills the early parts of the film, stitched together liltingly by editor Barry Alexander Brown, makes a whole world of complication. Sure, pigmentation is a problem. Of course. So are money and ownership and distant melting ice caps and the Celtics—that gentrifying cyclist’s telling Bird T-shirt—and sublimated sex and fragile patrimony and, amplifying everything, the hallucinogenic Brooklyn heat, surrounding (sometimes suffocating) Lee’s characters like loud music.
In the small and finely scrutinized world of Do the Right Thing (1989), everything’s more of a pain in the ass than it needs to be. Humanizing difficulty stretches out in each direction, makes a summer day feel like a fraught year. Another striking scene introduces Rosie Perez, as Tina, a young mother nearing the brink, shouting Spanglish imprecations over babysitting at her mother as she barrels through their thin railroad apartment. She moves straight outward, sometimes in shadow and sometimes washed in lozenge-orange light, toward the lens, which scurries backward. She looks like she might drop through the screen and onto your floor. Later, in an excruciatingly intimate, frankly objectifying moment, Mookie—Tina’s boyfriend and her baby’s father; Lee’s alter ego, played by the director himself; our main character and antihero—smears ice across her lips and brown-skinned legs and breasts, thanking their Creator as he goes, as if preparing her for some impromptu vivisection. Here, Lee seems to say of Perez, whose first movie appearance this is—here’s a new person for you: totally real.
Although his story is always rolling toward tragedy—blood and the billy club, fire and water—much of Lee’s art here, and his deception, comes from how he lingers on little episodes, and on the people who populate them. As if introducing us to each child of a bustling family, he brings forward a face or two at a time and chides them into offering us a wave. Here’s Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), the drunken neighborhood warden; here’s Mother Sister (Ruby Dee, doing a haikuist’s unwasteful work with her few lines)—whose name is all relationship, implicitly connected on both ends—watching from the window; here’s a salty triumvirate of older men, sitting outside, backgrounded by a fire-engine-red wall, talking shit and trading complaints. Lee’s great talents are already brilliantly present here, in this third feature: effusive place-love and a visual style that makes his best characters individual and iconic at once. His people talk bombastically but with surprising vulnerability; Lee’s writing drips with offhand wit and streetwise poetry. And his humane visual style, full of humming color and plain interpersonal curiosity, is an honorific engine. His later ability to dignify Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, in 1992, and—improbably—Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson as minstrels in Bamboozled (2000), and, in When the Levees Broke (2006), the victims of the U.S. government’s neglectful response to Hurricane Katrina, is as much visual as moral. In Do the Right Thing, this ethic is compounded by Ernest Dickerson’s photography, with its emphasis on symmetry and synchronized motion; the vivid, color-clashing outfits arranged by costume designer Ruth E. Carter; and Wynn Thomas’s production design, which turns Bed-Stuy into a haunted, waiting stage. The saint-making impulse that led to Lee’s famous floating-walk effect—first seen in Mo’ Better Blues (1990) though absent from Do the Right Thing—is a twin to the one that gives us that loving early glimpse, a brief portrait, of poor Raheem.
“Lee’s gift to his characters is his own unshakable and nearly religious interest in faces.”
Icons are everywhere. Behind the cash register at Sal’s Famous Pizzeria there’s a painting of Pope John Paul II. Trouble starts with faded headshot photography: the slice joint’s “Wall of Fame” is uniformly Italian in extraction; Sinatra, Pacino, and Travolta hang there as inspiration for Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons, Vito (Richard Edson) and Pino (John Turturro). Buggin Out (Giancarlo Esposito) wants to see some darker luminaries mixed in, the better to suit Sal’s largely black clientele. The local radio DJ, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), does his work among posters of Keith Sweat, Whitney Houston, Tracy Chapman, and Anita Baker. Smiley (Roger Guenveur Smith), the stuttering hustle man, sells scrawl-embellished images of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.—another pair of channels, never quite as far apart as our public imagination has tended to insist—not unlike the scores of pious artisans who set up shop outside the entrances of certain shrines, hawking statuettes and pocket pictures of the Virgin. Lee’s gift to his characters is his own unshakable and nearly religious interest in faces.
And consider Mookie, who, among the personae, tips most perilously and fruitfully over the border into archetype. Lee’s willingness to symbolize this lost, half-charming, mostly harmless kid—and, along the way, to symbolize himself—is perhaps what has kept him (well, both of them) so fresh over the thirty years since Do the Right Thing first appeared in theaters, and has allowed the film to prophesy with such uncanny precision our own time. Mookie’s entire look—throwback Dodgers jersey, artfully parted fade, fluorescent shorts, rare-looking Nikes—would be just as on-trend on a skinny black kid in 2019. Plop him down in today’s Bed-Stuy, or Bushwick, or Harlem, or Lower East Side, and nobody bats an eye. He uses a towel festooned with a classic Knicks logo that has, these days, made its way back into use. Little wonder, then, that his woes—a kind of ironized alienation, low cash flow, and, before long, a friend murdered by police—feel just as fresh.
By the time Do the Right Thing was released—or maybe unleashed does its seismic and immediate impact more justice—Lee had already established himself as one of America’s foremost young filmmakers, following the success of She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and School Daze (1988). His eye for comedy was clear, as were his elegiac love for black people and his deep involvement in the politics of the moment. Now he found himself in the middle of one of New York City’s periodic inflammations of racial angst, sparked by state-sanctioned racist violence and intermittently settled in the streets. Lee dedicated his new film, an opus of racial proximity, to the families of Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood, and Michael Stewart: each black, each killed by police or a white mob. All those names: songs cut short. (Incidentally, the crown Smiley draws over Dr. King’s head looks something like the crowns famously used by Jean-Michel Basquiat to honor bygone black heroes. Basquiat was so spooked by the killing of Stewart, a fellow graffiti artist, that he dedicated a painting, Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), to the incident.) Toward the end of Do the Right Thing, after Raheem’s asphyxiation by baton, the crowd starts to invoke the dead, first tentatively, then as a chant. The litany of names has become one of the signature rhetorical tropes of the twenty-teens; Lee’s crowd has memorized their list—on which Raheem is just the latest item—just as well and as thoroughly as contemporary viewers can tick through the likes of Trayvon Martin, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, and Philando Castile.
Two years after Do the Right Thing, in 1991, a riot bloomed like a rash in Crown Heights, punctuating tensions between blacks and Jews that rhymed perfectly with the black-Italian (and, to a much lesser extent, black-Korean) strife that Lee sketches. Earlier that same year, on the other side of the continent, Rodney King had been pummeled by a gang of highway cops. Ten years after the film came out, in 1999, NYPD officers fired forty-one shots at Amadou Diallo, an innocent Guinean immigrant, killing him just after midnight, steps away from his own home. Fast-forward twenty-five years from Do the Right Thing, to 2014, and alight on Eric Garner, an eerie echo of Raheem: also big of body, also a fixture in his neighborhood, also choked to death on the sidewalk for no reason. Back in ’89, some viewers were worried that Lee might provoke black audiences to violence. What a strange and oblivious concern, what with reality’s steady supply of kindling for the fire. Lee’s crucial climactic passage—death, rage, riot—is easily the most blankly realistic in the film.
Its notes of righteous anger notwithstanding, Do the Right Thing is an early articulation of the uneasy ambivalence that would become the signature black political attitude of the nineties. (It’s not too hyperbolic to say that this movie helped to call that decade, tonally and visually, into being; the fonts and angular graphics of its opening credits foreshadow those used in classic black sitcoms like Martin and Living Single, and its high-flying, supersavvy argot is echoed in John Leguizamo’s one-man shows and Wanda Sykes’s stand-up specials.) The civil-rights generation, with its totemic victories and liberal Protestant openness, was long gone, and its fierce successors, Black Arts and Black Power—those political-artistic twin nationalisms—were beginning to recede. Now Lee’s generation would start to sift through the work of their forebears and start to edge toward a tentative blend. The most chaotic moments of Do the Right Thing jibe naturally with lines like these, from Gwendolyn Brooks’s late-sixties poem “Riot”:
“Because the Poor were sweaty and unpretty
(not like Two Dainty Negroes in Winnetka)
and they were coming toward him in rough ranks.
In seas. In windsweep. They were black and loud.
And not detainable. And not discreet.”
But the movie also contains an earnest and quite unconcealed yearning for togetherness. Yes, one of the three outdoor choristers, ML (Paul Benjamin), is aggrieved by the economic foothold gained by the Koreans who own the grocery store that sits across Stuyvesant Avenue from Sal’s—but his buddies have fun reminding him that he, a West Indian, also stepped off “the boat” into New York. His pattern of absorption into the life of the city and the country is different from the grocers’—it’s unavoidably inflected by his color—but it is no less real, and no less comic in its quickness. ML has rushed into American covetousness just as abruptly as Sonny and Kim the grocers (Steve Park and Ginny Yang) have claimed their stake in American commerce.
Even the soundtrack—a rush of prairie strings composed by Bill Lee, Spike’s father, evidence of a love for blues and the old American songbook, plus Public Enemy’s rhymes backed by a James Brown sample on loop—reaches toward admixture. And it’s possible to enjoy Do the Right Thing solely in terms of its many voices and polyglot sounds. One of the film’s more famous sequences—a handful of Lee’s characters, each portraited in the frame, shouting out racial slurs in creative torrents, direct to camera—is made ironic by the multitude of accents it offers. Even bigotry is pluralistic here.
Lee’s use of John Turturro’s olive skin and voluminous hair makes racial ambiguity a kind of wordless speech. Pino hates “niggers” but loves Magic Johnson. And none of his bluster can dull his brother Vito’s budding friendship with Mookie, or Sal’s obvious crush on Jade, Mookie’s sister (played by Spike’s real-life sister, Joie Lee). After all the violence, Mookie and Sal share one last scene that starts with acrimony but ends up feeling like the beginning of a resolution. Buggin Out tells Mookie to “stay black,” but Tina simply begs him to be a man. Nobody to whom both those designations pertain ever really has a choice.
We will always be disappointed with Spike Lee if we expect him to be something other than essentially, if pessimistically, liberal—a wary synthesist, stuck between sides of the stereo. He respects and loves the radicals, admires their bombast and unbounded, readily apparent love for the race and its people, but in the end won’t see their premises all the way through. Just before the credits, two quotations scroll down the screen—one by Malcolm, defending political violence in self-defense; one by Martin, ruling it out. This undigested dialectic has, more or less, been our racial-political reality, from the nineties on forward.
The most fitting culture hero for Do the Right Thing might be Nelson Mandela, who isn’t mentioned in the film but seems to me to hover over it invisibly. In some ways, Lee’s tightly circumscribed story has more in common with the South African dynamic of white minoritarian rule—Sal and his sons are the only white people in sight, save that cyclist—than with the broad narrative of majoritarian terror in America. Mandela was released from prison less than a year after Do the Right Thing came out and wasted little time in running successfully for the presidency. Soon, the former radical who had once ardently defended the right of the oppressed to engage in revolutionary violence was heralded as a global symbol of peace and reconciliation.
Raheem—so exquisitely human; just a guy who keeps to himself and loves his music—is made to accommodate similar polarities. The first time we hear him talk at length, he’s showing an admiring Mookie his pair of brass four-finger rings. They look sharp and well-kept and vaguely dangerous. One says love and the other says hate. The camera takes him straight on and flattens him into a sort of painting: we see the rings flashing, the row of brownstones spread wide behind him like a pair of Technicolor secondary arms, his “Bed-Stuy Do or Die” T-shirt and the odd focus in his eyes. He shadowboxes toward the camera, acting out the ongoing battle between the two moral modes—they depend on each other, like percussion in the left ear and a horn line in the right. Love gets the KO, but hate hangs in there, just in case.